by Karen J. Brittan

Basically, licking in a dog is a sign of submission, but it really is a much more complex behavior than one would initially think. It begins in the puppy when he is beginning to be weaned. When the puppy licks around the adult's mouth, it triggers a reaction in the adult, causing her/him (but usually the dam) to regurgitate her half-digested stomache contents. In the wild, this would be the puppies' first solid food. So when your dog licks around your face, guess what? Thanks, but I'll pass on THAT one, dog. I don't share my food with anyone, BEFORE or AFTER.

Even as the dog grows, this face-licking behavior is often seen in the approach of a lower-ranked individual to a more alpha adult. It is observed that the more alpha dog will turn his head away from the onslaughts of the other and even growl if the lower-ranked dog persists. Some particularly submissive dogs may continue to "pester" in this fashion, however, even after being warned, until the alpha dog attacks. I know that when I have corrected a dog (particularly if I am angry), the dog usually will begin to lick my hand or arm. We say that the dog "forgives", but I think it is more of a signal that the dog is attempting to inhibit further "aggression" on the part of the person giving the correction. If you have a dominant dog, he will rarely lick you.

Dams also lick their babies in the "nest". This helps the babies to eliminate and keeps them and the den area clean for the first few weeks of life. Some dogs seem to carry this behavior beyond this time and become what I call "nannies or nursemaids". Certain dogs take it upon themselves to be the official pack "cleaner-upper". They can spend hours cleaning the eyes and ears of the other dogs in their pack, going from dog to dog, and I have even seen some dogs go up to this dog and solicite the behavior. It almost seems like this grooming routine gives both individuals pleasure. (Talk about a bad hair day! There is nothing like the sight of totally wet eyebrows and beard sticking up and out in all different directions after a thorough cleaning.) My Phoenix is one of these "official" dogs. Once she was attempting to clean an older puppy who was too busy to be bothered with having his face washed. Phoenix snarled in the puppy's face, whacked him down with her foot (held him down, too!), and proceeded to finish washing his face.

Konnor is my nurse-dog. This 7-year-old male not only cleans faces, but he will also find the tiniest boo-boo on any dog and try to make it better by licking at it. I have spotted things wrong with some of my dogs that I might otherwise have overlooked if it weren't for Konnor's behavior. (Well, let's just say that he helps me spot problems quicker.) He particularly will lick puppies' mouths while they are teething.

As I sit here re-reading this, I started thinking about my very first schnauzer, Hi Ya Gret, CDX. Greta was the most dominant, most intelligent, dog I have every known. She never licked....ever, until the night we were taking that last trip to the vet, and as we drove along, me in tears, she began licking at my arm and hand as if to say she understood and accepted what we were doing.

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